Mar 29

Digital Democracy

The cusp of digital evolution, freedom and neighbourhood

Our cities, workspaces and homes are seeing an unprecedented influx of technology. The intelligent connectivity between sensors, devices and individuals is re-modelling our landscape. Some trust in the technology and fearlessly envision a future re-invented, all of society’s woes addressed. Then there are others, more cautious, keen for technology to flourish, but with hold of the reins, not allowing it to run unbridled.

But how tightly should the reins be held? And who should be holding them anyway?

Last week, non-profit digital think-tank Cybersalon, represented by Eva Pascoe among others, held a public event in the House of Commons debating digital citizenship, democracy, privacy and security; regulating the common interest of digital rights, education and commons—the digital public space—was at the forefront.

Having met with Pascoe some weeks previously, I had the opportunity to ask her about the evolving digital world, or neighbourhood as Pascoe refers to it, and what it means to live in the modern digital environment. We also spoke about the physicality of technology as an impediment to adoption, as well as touching upon location based technology and the unnecessary desire of some companies to collect masses of irrelevant data. Gaming came up too, and in particular, women’s role as not only gamers, but creators too.

Digital citizenship

In the following video, she cites Andy Cameron as a considerable influence. Cameron lived digital media and among many things co-founded the University of Westminster‘s Hypermedia Research Centre. Cameron and Richard Barbrook wrote The Californian Ideology, which has been described as a critique of the neo-liberal politics of Wired magazine. Pascoe refers to Cameron telling her that, “A digital community will only work if it is treated as a physical community.” As Pascoe says herself in this clip, “If we were in the same room, we would just have one big discussion and settle it.”

In a reference to the Hong Kong demonstrations of 2014, Pascoe points out that we need to see the protestors as neighbours in a physical world, as well as a digital one, “… digital space does shrink distance … behaviour online needs to be executed in the same way that we would treat our physical neighbour.” She goes on to talk about the need to mature, “… assuming that you can behave differently in cyberspace has probably outlived its usefulness, so we need to manoeuvre forward and negotiate digital citizenship in a different way.”


Women, computers and gaming

On the topic of women and computing, Pascoe sees organised education as a problem, but is confident that the transition of computing, and certainly gaming, into the mainstream is a big driver, “… yes, women are pushing in, and like any art, women will be there, but [there is] pushback from the people who got there first—the boys … as games go mainstream, both the producers and the consumers are mainstream, which is both genders.” She brings up co-founder of Funomena, Robin Hunicke, as demonstrating the impact of women’s creativity in the gaming world: as a result of women’s influence in gaming, says Pascoe, men are now questioning “the massively exaggerated notion of masculinity” that is typical of many male-orientated games and that men themselves are now looking at more metrosexual, less gender-specific, ways to engage, “Women were always knocking at the door, but the door was always closed.”


The physicality of technology

Co-founding Cyberia Internet Café, the world’s first internet café, gives Pascoe a unique perspective on this matter. She talks about the bulky and often ugly appearance of PCs, particularly in the 90s, being quickly forgotten as they facilitated human connection, interaction and ultimately community. However, Pascoe also anecdotally talks about being out with friends, celebrating a birthday, and finding themselves sat next to a rather loud chap having a Skype session with his girlfriend over a bottle of wine, “… we were all laughing [about it] because [all my friends and I] were of the same ilk, I would be doing that probably, if it wasn’t him.” Again referring to the notion of digital neighbourhood, Pascoe points out that “technology in a public space, require us more and more to have a sense of digital neighbourhood … we are very good at managing a physical neighbourhood … but we are [still] figuring out the digital-physical overlap.”


Location based technology

Though initially suspicious of iBeacons, in terms of an individual’s privacy, Pascoe soon saw the potential for them to enable location based services that enhance our lives, “… after working with iBeacons for over a year now [I find] it’s a liberating technology.” Through Pascoe’s work with Topshop, she has highlighted the pertinent information a vendor needs, and what it doesn’t, “… things like your name, and your grandmother’s occupation … are not really that necessary … iBeacons give us an opportunity to transit from that fascination and greed for swallowing data, to actually sitting down for five minutes and [deciding] which data are actually necessary.”

A good point Pascoe makes is that you need so much less data when you know where you and your customers are. A good example is the ability of iBeacons to let vendors pick a particular time window to acquire data, “… maybe I only need your data between 12 and 4 o’clock when you are on the high street, I don’t necessarily want to know what you do before and after”.


Digital revolution

So, utopia, whatever happened to that? “The biggest passage of change was [the idea] that if technology was left to its own devices, it would somehow bring about utopia … the original development of the internet was driven by extremely hippy values, and very much counter-culture values and very good values … so it went without saying that as the technology of the Internet grew, netiquette and a sense of community would prevail, but the big surprise was that didn’t happen.” Pascoe talks about the “conflict in technology” that Edward Snowdon brought to the fore: one ideal is solutionism, something the writer Evgeny Morozov regularly criticizes, “… inherently believing that the future will be better, just because it’s more techie …”, the other is the role of humans in redefining technology and having a determining hand in the steps forward.


Digital Future

Those with concerns around the immensely empowering nature of technology could look to the many demonstrations in recent years, apparently fueled by technology; social media has allowed voices to be heard that were once silent, regimes to be questioned that were once unquestionable.

So, as Pascoe said as we were wrapping up, we need to get over the fact that we think we can make politics with social media, it’s a good starting point, but it’s definitely not the end point. “I suspect that we let technology run ahead of ourselves. I think there is an emerging understanding that social media is prone to amplifying negative messages … these protests would have happened anyway, and panned out very similarly, but there is an element of amplification, where if untamed, we might end up protesting in random ways against things that are probably not best changed by revolutions, but by evolutions.”

There are some wonderful tools available today, and I look forward to a world that creates even more—specifically for engaging governments, communities and individuals in productive debate of our digital future.

By Wael Elazab.

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